Now the tense wait is over, England finally know who they will be playing against in the World Cup in six months time. Italy, Costa Rica and Uruguay have been given the task of breaking English hearts and stopping them from lifting that most coveted of trophies.
It’s a fairly competitive group for Roy Hodgson, who could only book his flights to Rio after his side’s final qualifier against Poland.
But while the TV pundits argue whether England will win Group D, or even qualify for the Round of 16, we take a look at the threats that could stop the Three Lions from succeeding in Brazil.
England’s first game is against Italy, familiar rivals in international competitions. The Azzurri drew blood as recently as two years ago, when they knocked England out of Euro 2012 on penalties.
So who should Hodgson be wary of in Manaus? Here are three players that could cause issues for England.
No stranger to English defenders, Super Mario will be looking to remind the nation of what they are missing now he’s left the Premier League. While his two-and-a-half-year spell at Manchester City may have been full of controversy and drama, it also came with goals. Despite having only just reached his twenties, Balotelli scored 20 Premier League goals in just 54 appearances, proving why he cost City €20million (although he will probably believe he was worth much more than that.)
His spell in England was cut short though, after having one too many arguments with manager Roberto Mancini or his fellow players. It wasn’t just training incidents that got him in trouble either. He was sent off three times in his short Premier League spell, as well as once for City in the Europa League. The Italian also received a four-match ban after stamping on Scott Parker in a match against Tottenham Hotspur in January 2012. AC Milan manager Max Allegri has struggled to fix his discipline issues, with the striker picking up his first red card in the black and red stripes back in September.
But despite occasionally losing his head, the striker can demoralise opposition defenders with his brilliance. Fierce strikes against Germany in Euro 2012 and Brazil in a friendly in March are reminders of the power the 23-year-old can generate. His strength on the ball, and incredible ability to find the back of the net, make Balotelli Italy’s top striker, and biggest threat in the upcoming World Cup.
Unless you’ve only started watching football in the last year, or you decided that you weren’t going to watch Euro 2012, there aren’t many people who don’t know about the threat Andrea Pirlo brings to any team he graces.
The 34-year-old has made 107 appearances for the national team, and has won nearly every tournament possible. Just a European Championship winners medal has evaded the magician, who has lifted the Serie A trophy four times and the Champions League twice.
There isn’t a pass that Pirlo can’t play. Whether it is a 50-yard cross-field switch, or a delicate through-ball on the edge of the area, the veteran midfielder can make it, blindfolded. The key playmaker for both the national team and Juventus, Pirlo’s ability to not only find every teammate with a pass, but to also cover every blade of grass, makes the 34-year-old a crucial player to keep an eye on. And if Italy get a set piece, then prepare yourselves for something special. A stunning free-kick taker, Pirlo can score from 20 yards or 35 yards. And every England fan knows about his penalty taking ability!
Hodgson thought he had Pirlo worked out back in Euro 2012. The midfielder was supposed to be man marked as tightly as possible, and yet it was England’s players who didn’t get any time on the ball. Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard were reduced to shadows chasing Pirlo around the pitch, as the Italian made 131 passes on the night, 87 more than England’s highest passer Ashley Cole. The 34-year-old was creating chances while stopping England attacks, before scoring the match-changing penalty. The Three Lions were 2-1 up in the shootout when Pirlo stepped up to start the third round of kick takers. His delicate, delightful, ridiculously cool chip sent Hart the wrong way, and changed the shootout. Ashley Young then responded by hitting the bar, before Ashley Cole had his shot saved, leading to Diamanti to fire Italy into the semi-finals of the tournament.
Stephan El Shaarawy
Just 21-years-old, El Shaarawy is starting to make a name for himself in Europe. The Milan forward scored 16 goals last season, as he lit up Serie A with his pace and flair. And while the rising star is currently injured with a foot injury, El Shaarawy will be desperate to shine when fit ahead of the summer tournament.
Whoever Hodgson picks as his starting full-backs for the first match in Manaus, they could be set for a long evening should El Shaarawy feature. Full of step-overs and tricks, the starlet has terrified Serie A defenders over the last two seasons, skipping past players for fun. With five months of league football still remaining, the youngster has plenty of time to develop a key partnership with Balotelli, that could benefit the national team greatly should the two link up strongly.
El Shaarawy will have an eye on Milan’s Champions League draw too. After qualifying for the last 16 of the tournament, the 21-year-old will be hoping to be fit to showcase his talents against Europe’s best in the competition. In Brazil, with Pirlo’s ability to slide a ball behind the defence, the Milan winger could blitz through on goal, and deny England from the perfect start to their World Cup.